Short Story – The Redemption of Brother Draga

“What brought you to Prussia, brother?”

It was the first time Draga had been asked the question directly. Even after his arrival in Prussia, even after his acceptance into the Teutonic Order, none had asked his reasons for leaving Saxony.

Not that they cared. The Pope had issued the Bull for crusade in Prussia to spread the Word of God and bring the heathen to heel, and the Teutonic Order were desperate for help after a series of costly losses. Beyond Draga’s horse, armor, and sword the Teutonic Order had cared little about his past.

That was all fine and well with Draga.

Now Draga, and the other Teutonic Knights, were making their way up river, rowing against the current in flat-bottomed boats to reach their intended target: a village of Yatwingians that was a stopping point for raids into the Order’s lands and harassment of their shipping. Besides, the villagers refused baptism.

Draga turned to the originator of the question, a Brother Fadiko, of some minor noble family – near the Rhineland? Or around Bavaria? Draga had met so many in the last week that he was having trouble remembering all their backgrounds and Fatherlands.

“Why does anyone join the Teutonic Order?” Draga replied as he rowed.

Fadiko emitted joyless chuckle. “Redemption. The full remission of sins, or so they say.”

“So they say,” Draga replied.

“And what are you seeking redemption from?” Fadiko said, continuing to press Draga. “Did you massacre a village? Caught lying with a woman whom you weren’t married to?” Fadiko paused a moment and wrinkled his nose. “Caught lying with a man?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m just looking to get out from under my brother’s shadow,” Fadiko said with no prompt from Draga. “He wanted me to join the priesthood so I would not challenge his claim to our father’s lands.”

“And here you are,” Draga said, pointing to the white linen that covered Fadiko’s body and armor, the black cross of the order sewn to the left of his white surcoat.

“In a sense,” Fadiko said. “Though ask a certain pagan woman in Koenigsberg and she would whole heartedly disagree that I’m anything like a priest.”

Draga emitted a grunt and shook his head.

Normally on horseback, for this raid Draga, Fadiko, and the handful of other brother-knights would embark on foot. Like Draga and Fadiko, the other Teutonic Knights were each clad in their armor and long white surcoats, the black cross of the order emblazoned on the left. Each knight’s helmet was set beside them so as not to be cumbersome during rowing. Going to war with the Teutonic Knights were auxiliaries of Old Prussians, from tribes friendly with the Teutonic Order, and more importantly enemies of the Yatwingians.

The sky above was an ominous gray, the clouds pregnant with rain. It was late Spring, and, as in much of Prussia, the rains came more frequently this time of year.

“I still don’t see why we couldn’t bring our horses,” another brother, Ernulf, said. Though his voice was quiet, the keen whine within still raked on Draga’s nerves.

One of the Old Prussian auxiliaries, an elder by the name of Herk, responded from the front of the vessel, behind Draga.

“My lord,” said Herk, his voice laden with a Prussian accent, “the way is too heavily forested. The horses could not maneuver and the Yatwingians would easily kill you.” Herk took a breath mid-stroke before continuing. “And though the land looks solid, in many places the ground beneath is saturated with water, and you would be forced to drag your horse out of the mud.”

Ernulf didn’t respond to Herk’s explanation, instead mumbling something to himself about the “damned heathens”.

And on they rowed. The Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries had been rowing for two days. Though always on the look out for attacks from the riverbanks, the constant rowing became monotonous, and Draga’s mind would wonder. Draga’s mind would take him away from these dreary Prussian lands, back to Saxony, back to his home. Back to his wife and children.

Back to that day.

Back to the heat of the raging inferno.

Back to the pleading screams of the woman.

Back to the distraught cries of the child…

Draga shook his head, banishing the memories – for now.

“This is the place, Brother-Sergeant,” the Old Prussian warrior, Herk, said from the front of the boat.

Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt von Wolfsburg, the commander of this expedition, grunted a confirmation, then gave the order to put ashore.

Three of the flat-bottomed boats travelled together, and each carried roughly a score of men. In short order, all three boats had ground against the river bank, and Draga and the other warriors within leapt overboard into the cold river to help pull the boats in. Once the boats were secure on the riverbank, the three-score of Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian Auxiliaries secured their war gear, then gathered around Gisilbehrt and the Old Prussian leader, Herk.

Gisilbehrt was a bear of a man, a full two heads taller than the tallest man standing in the ranks. His brown beard was so dark that it looked black, and his head was shaved to the scalp. Bright, zealous blue eyes raked across the ranks of brothers and auxiliaries. Rumor had it that Gisilbehrt could peer into a man’s soul with those eyes.

Draga wasn’t so sure of that, but he had to admit that Gisilbehrt’s dark glare and excellent oratory awoke a fiery zeal in many a man’s heart.

“Draw your blades, brothers,” Gisilbehrt said. Though he whispered, his deep bass voice carried to the ears of every man.

“Won’t the glint off our swords give us away to the pagans?” Ernulf asked, and that damned whine in Ernulf’s voice scraped Draga’s nerves again.

Herk replied to Ernulf’s question. “If the Yatwingians have scouts in the forest, they’ll spot us regardless. Better to have your sword ready than trying to draw it as you die.”

“Wise words that shall be heeded,” Gisilbehrt said before Ernulf or any other brother could say anything else. Then Gisilbehrt turned to Herk. “Send your scouts ahead.”

Herk said something in the Prussian tongue and five men, lightly armed and with no armor, broke from the group and instantly seemed to melt into the forest.

“Move out,” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said with a wave of his hand, and the knights and auxiliaries fell into several columns to follow the progress of the scouts through the woods.

Draga was unsure how long they trudged through the thick vegetation and the sucking mire. Each step was a battle with Mother Earth as the seemingly solid ground would quickly give way under foot as if grasping him around the ankle, and Draga had to wrench his foot out to take even a single step, and then repeat the process. Watching the other Prussian auxiliaries struggle along with their Teutonic Knight masters, Draga wondered how the Prussian scouts were able to move through the woods so nimbly. But, according to Herk and his men, this was the most navigable path. So the knights and the Prussian auxiliaries trudged on.

After what seemed like hours, one of the scouts reappeared. The man – he seemed more of a boy to Draga – practically pranced around as he reported to Herk.

“He says the village is a short ways ahead,” Herk said, translating. “And that no Yatwingian scouts were encountered.”

“Very good,” Gisilbehrt replied.

With the struggle of travelling through the wood many of the brother-knights had carried their helmets beneath their arms. Now, though, with the battle nearly at hand, they donned their full-face helmets and whispered prayers to the Lord for protection. Gisilbehrt’s winged helm stood out among the rest – the crimson painted bat-like wings a powerful psychological instrument for friend and foe alike.

The brother-knights moved forward. Draga’s heart began to race, and it seemed as if his steps were easier now that he was prepared for imminent battle.

A short ways ahead the Teutonic Knights and their auxiliaries were halted by the scouts, and the five Prussian scouts guided them forward in silence. The three score warriors halted again, and this time the lead scout, an elderly Prussian with gray in his hair and beard, pointed to a clearing. There sat a collection of longhouses, their roofs thatched with bundled sticks, their sides made of stacked logs. Some of the hovels were dug into the earth, the roof the only thing sticking up from the ground. Surrounding the buildings were pens with goats. A large stream meandered by on the far side of the village from where Draga and the other Teutonic Knights now hid, and Draga could see where the Yatwingians had set up fish catches.

Other than the shuffling of the knights and the auxiliaries, the little village was peaceful. Almost idyllic. In another lifetime, Draga thought, he could have lived in such a place and been happy. And, he thought, they were bringing the sword and fire to this quiet place.

Fire.

And death.

And screams.

Draga shook his head as Gisilbehrt spoke.

“Spread out and surround the village,” Gisilbehrt said. “Let no one escape. Only kill if attacked.” Gisilbehrt met eyes with Herk. “And no rape.”

Herk nodded, but Draga could tell that something had just passed between the two men. Probably an old quarrel, Draga thought. Heathens, it was said, were known to be more apt rape their female victims.

Draga knew that Christian armies could be just as lecherous.

In short order the knights and auxiliaries spread out into a rough semi-circle on the forest’s edge. Gisilbehrt looked up and down his line, his left hand up, his sword in his right.

Gisilbehrt’s left hand fell, and the warriors of the Teutonic Order broke from the cover of the trees and charged into the village. War cries from three score throats crashed upon the serenity of the village.

Immediately, men rushed from out of the wood buildings. Some were ready with axe, spear, and shield. Others jostled their weapons and gear, caught unprepared. Others still were mere boys, only just coming of age, the hairs on their chins and cheeks only just showing, wide eyed with fear yet held fast in place by honor, the other men of the village, and fear of what would happen to their families.

Draga roared as he charged forward, sword drawn. A Yatwingian man of middling age met Draga, and Draga quickly dispatched him by ramming his sword through the man’s chest before the Yatwingian could react.

There was a victorious howl from the other knights and Old Prussians as they cheered Draga’s kill and began to lay into the other Yatwingian defenders.

Combat was not hard for Draga. He had been trained for it since he was a child in his family’s castle. Draga had been baptized in blood shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He had seen battle for years. Though the death cries of men and the stink of blood and corpses assailed him, Draga was able to deal with it and move on.

Now Draga moved onto his next opponent, a boy who, in a flash, reminded Draga of himself at that age. The boy roared a challenge before leaping upon Draga with two axes. Draga caught the bottom of both axe blades on his sword, and pushed the young Yatwingian back. As Draga and the young Yatwingian man circled one another, numerous other small duels were being fought around them.

Draga feinted left, and his Yatwingian opponent followed him just as Draga knew he would. But when Draga stepped in for the kill, the young Yatwingian man reacted quick as a flash and pushed Draga’s sword aside, though only barely. Draga and his opponent circled again, eyes wide, blood up. Draga felt the ghost of a smile on his own lips.

Now it was the young Yatwingian’s turn to feint. But Draga had years of experience on this youth, and was prepared. As the Yatwingian moved to Draga’s left a fraction of a step, Draga swung his sword up. Draga was rewarded with the rip of fabric, the spray of crimson blood, and the pained yowl of the young Yatwingian man.

Draga’s Yatwingian opponent collapsed on the ground, the youth’s chest heaving rapidly. As Draga watched he could see he had only wounded the younger man, and that, if he stayed down, this Yatwingian would live.

“Submit,” Draga said, his voice deep and harsh, and he leveled his sword point at the youth’s throat.

The young Yatwingian man took Draga’s meaning and, though clearly in pain, raised his hands in submission.

Around Draga the Teutonic Knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries were finishing up their opponents. Some of the Yatwingians had stood and fought bravely – and died. Some, like Draga’s opponent, had submitted, and their lives were spared. A small handful of Yatwingian defenders had taken the cowards way out and fled, and Draga could hear Herk ordering his men to pursue.

“A victory for Christendom!” Brother-Sergeant Gisilbehrt said, yelling to the heavens. “God be praised.”

“God be praised!” roared the other knights, and Draga found himself joining in their jubilation.

“Search the buildings,” Gisilbehrt said. “Take any still hiding within. We will take them back to Koenigsberg. Gather the livestock. Then burn the buildings. Leave nothing for the pagan armies. Herk, have your men capture those that fled, and find anyone hiding in the woods.”

Herk set his men to the task Gisilbehrt had given them, and several of Herk’s Old Prussian auxiliaries secured Draga’s young opponent.

“Gave him quite a lesson, my Lord,” one of the auxiliaries said in broken Low German as he grabbed the young Yatwingian man’s legs.

“He was an excellent opponent,” Draga said, then saluted the young Yatwingian with his sword.

The Old Prussian auxiliary translated for the youth, and, though still in pain, the younger man smiled and nodded to Draga.

“Shall we see what these heathens have hiding?” Brother Fadiko said, walking up beside Draga.

“Probably not much,” Draga said, leading Fadiko to the nearest longhouse. “Though poorly prepared, it seems that someone notified this village of our arrival.”

Fadiko shrugged. “Still a decent fight, though my opponent fled.”

Draga and Fadiko entered the first house, swords up. Within were discarded blankets, some arrows, and the scattered leavings of food. In the center of the home was a fire pit, and the burned logs there still showed some heat.

Empty. Not even a place for anyone to hide.

Draga wrapped a discarded cloth he had found on the dirt floor around the top of a piece of wood that had been propped against the longhouse wall, and placing it into the orange embers, coaxed heat from them with his breath. It took a moment, but soon the rag burned and Draga began touching his makeshift torch to spots he knew would catch fire quickly.

Exiting the now burning longhouse Draga could see that the other knights had begun to do the same, and the village was transforming into an inferno.

Draga and Fadiko moved to the next house. Fadiko had to kick the door in, and inside they discovered a few weapons and some cured meat.

“Would hate for this to go to waste,” Fadiko said, sweeping up the pieces of meat.

Unlike the previous house Draga and Fadiko had searched, this house had more storage areas built into its structure. Something nagged at the back of Draga’s mind, and he made a point of searching every nook and cranny.

“There’s nothing here,” Fadiko said, clearly bored. “Let’s just burn it.”

“Indulge me a moment,” Draga said as he moved some baskets.

Draga was unable to find anything, save some discarded barley here and there. Still, though, the nagging feeling at the back of Draga’s mind tormented him.

Outside the longhouse, Draga heard Gisilbehrt call to the knights.

“Let’s go,” Fadiko said.

Reluctantly Draga grunted an affirmation and followed Fadiko out of the longhouse, setting areas alight as he went.

As Draga and Fadiko joined the other brother-knights and the auxiliaries, Draga noted that many of the fleeing Yatwingian warriors had been captured. With them were a handful of womenfolk and children, and a few elders of the village, most likely captured when discovered hiding in the surrounding forest. Though surrounded and defeated, Draga sensed a great deal of agitation and uneasiness in their captives.

Gisilbehrt noticed it, too. “Herk, what’s wrong?”

Herk asked the captives a question in the Prussian tongue, and a man about Draga’s age came forward, a worried look on his face, and knelt before Gisilbehrt and Herk. Though Draga could tell the Yatwingian man attempted to remain calm, there was a waver in his voice that betrayed fear.

“He says he cannot find his son,” Herk said after a short exchange with the Yatwingian man. “None of the villagers that hid in the woods have seen him, either.”

Gisilbehrt was about to say something when a long cry came from one of the burning houses.

The last house Draga and Fadiko had searched.

Suddenly, a sinking feeling filled Draga, and it was as if he was transported back to that day.

The fire.

The screams of the mother.

The cries of the child.

Before he knew what he was doing, Draga dashed through the village toward the burning longhouse. Gisilbehrt and Fadiko called to Draga, but he paid them no heed. Draga burst through the door of the longhouse he had searched last. The searing heat of the flames pressed upon Draga. He coughed as he tried to breath, and his eyes filled with water from the smoke.

“Hello!” Draga called. “Where are you?”

The crying of the child, fearful and in pain, filled the burning longhouse.

Draga threw open baskets and turned over bedding. It was becoming harder to breathe as he attempted to search every nook and cranny of what was now a blazing inferno. Draga’s heart raced, and in his mind he barely managed to keep the flood of panic held back.

As Draga’s frustration threatened to overwhelm him, his foot hit something hollow on the dirt floor. Draga had missed it in his first search, but now he saw the outline on the ground. With a triumphant yell, Draga dug at the ground with his bare hands, and was rewarded when his nails struck wood. Draga heaved the hidden cover off the floor and looked down. There, in a shallow hide hole, sat a young boy no older than three years, huddled with his knees to his chest, his eyes wide, his soot covered cheeks streaked with tears.

Draga had no words of comfort, nor did he have time for them. He swept up the Yatwingian boy in his arms, cradling him like Draga used to cradle his own son, and charged out the flame-wreathed door.

Just as Draga stumbled out of the burning longhouse, the roof collapsed inward.

There was a cheer from the Yatwingians. The boy’s father, forgetting the knights and Old Prussian auxiliaries, rushed to Draga, tears in his eyes. Draga handed the boy to the father and, though Draga couldn’t translate the Yatwingian man’s words, he could understand them well enough.

Thank you.

“That was a brave thing you did,” Fadiko said. “Even though you didn’t have to do it.”

“Brave indeed,” Gisilbehrt said, approaching Draga. “An act of mercy in the midst of war. God bless you, Brother Draga.”

It was dark when the Teutonic Knights and their Old Prussian auxiliaries herded their Yatwingian captives toward the boats. Gisilbehrt ordered camp made, a constant guard on their prisoners, and preparation for travel the next morning.

Once fires were lit, those knights and auxiliaries not guarding the Yatwingians huddled around the welcome heat and ate and drank.

“Going back should be nice,” Fadiko said, taking a seat next to Draga on the river’s edge. “We won’t be rowing upstream. Hopefully be back in Koenigsberg before nightfall tomorrow.”

Draga grunted a response.

“Is everything alright, brother?” Fadiko asked.

“Well enough,” said Draga. He wasn’t in the mood to talk at that moment.

“You may be alright physically, but there seems something weighing on your soul,” Fadiko said. “Some demon clinging to your back?”

Draga was silent, and after a while Fadiko shrugged and pulled some of the cured meat he had found in the Yatwingian village from a pouch on his belt.

“Several months ago,” Draga began, “I took my knights to support the Duke of Saxony against Danish interlopers in the Nordalbingian lands. Once we had pushed the Danes out of Saxony, we drove North into Denmark to teach them a lesson.” Draga paused a moment to gather his thoughts before continuing. “We came to a village, no bigger than the one we raided today. There was little fighting. A few deaths on their side. We terrorized the people and drove them from their homes.”

Draga stopped as the memories flooded back to the fore of his mind, and with them came the anger and pain he had attempted to bury for so long.

“Once the villagers had fled we burned their village, but. . .” Draga stopped as he felt something catch in his throat.

“But?” Fadiko asked.

Draga collected himself before speaking again. “One woman ran back, screaming and crying. She couldn’t find her son, and begged us to help her.”

Draga stopped then, and the silence stretched out for several long moments.

“The child had been hiding somewhere in the house. . .his cries of fear and pain haunt me to this day. There was nothing we could do, and the child slowly burned to death.” Draga hung his head. “I have seen battle, killed men, unleashed troops upon unsuspecting villagers, and witnessed all the ravages war brings. But that day something snapped inside me. I returned to my castle, but when I saw my own children I couldn’t look them in the eye. I went to confession for my sins, and yet still I felt. . .unclean.”

“And you haven’t forgiven yourself since,” Fadiko said.

Draga shook his head.

“I am a poor priest, as many a woman will tell you,” Fadiko said. “And my words are biased from a lifetime of war myself. To me, it seems, your soul has suffered a great deal, and God knows you did not mean to let that child burn that day in Denmark. And today God gave you the opportunity for redemption.” Fadiko placed his hand on Draga’s shoulder. “God has forgiven you, Brother. It’s time you forgave yourself.”

Fadiko took his hand off of Draga’s shoulder and motioned to the Yatwingian captives.

Draga looked over and saw the Yatwingian boy he had saved and the father, huddled together in the group of captives. Though their lot was deplorable just then, and they were tired, muddy, and hungry, the Yatwingian father looked at his son as if he was more precious and valuable than a priceless gem or a hoard of gold.

It was in that moment – not plunging into the fires to save the boy, but in the loving embrace of the boy and his father – that Brother Draga found his redemption.

Praise be to God.

*          *          *

It was Spring when Count Draga stepped back into his castle. Following in tow were the Yatwingian man, his name Vaitīns, and his son Budrys, whom Draga had saved that day almost a year ago, and was now four years of age, as well as the young man Draga defeated in combat in the Yatwingian village, name Kazys.

As Draga walked through the hall he laid eyes upon his beautiful wife, Regana, planted in her seat above the court.

“My lady,” Draga said, his voice strong. “Your husband has returned.”

Though Regana attempted to keep a straight face, her lips cracked into a smile.

“Welcome home, my Lord.”

And then Draga felt something impact his legs. He looked down, and there was his son, Roland, shaggy haired and all smiles. Roland may have defied the rules of the court, but at that moment Draga didn’t care. All propriety forgotten, Draga lifted his son in his arms and hugged him tight. Immediately, Draga’s eldest son, Hrodulf, and his daughter, Berhta, rushed to embrace their father.

“I am home,” Draga said.

Holding Roland back, and looking at his children, Draga found he could look them in the eye once more.

“Thank you, God, for my family,” Draga said.

And thank you for my redemption.

Miscellaneous – Thoughts on Buying Local

I want to preface this post with the fact that I fully and wholly support free market capitalism. It has done amazing things for communities and countries around the world. I think the healthy mix of independently employed individuals and small businesses all the way up to giant corporations are important for maintaining healthy competition, advancement of technology, and improvement of living conditions.

Now, some readers will point out to the bad things in American capitalism. I argue that here in the United States we do not, in fact, have free market capitalism. There are limits, from the hundreds of thousands of dollars that must be paid in New York in order to license taxis so that only the biggest of taxi companies can afford to run cars, to the latest fee that any manufacturer of guns or gun parts – even that self-employed guy with an old lathe making a few gun parts here and there – must pay in order to not be raided by the FBI. (Thanks Obama.) I’m not talking about regulations about quality (don’t want human parts in our hotdogs), I’m talking about cost of entry. Our current and previous administrations, conservative and liberal, have made our economy semi-planned.

Though I support free-market capitalism, I also want to support local businesses. In the Ward of the city I live in, there are at minimum three independently owned restaurants. One is Turkish food, and my wife and I raid it like the Varangian Guard on Holiday. I would much rather support these businesses than, say, McDonald’s. (I actually cannot remember the last time I ate McDonald’s.) Even where there are chain stores (Baker’s/Kroger’s here) I would rather shop at the one here in our Ward, that I know hires people from our Ward of the city, as opposed to another grocery store. (That said, Aldi is very difficult to beat, and is just one Ward over.)

This goes back to thoughts on tribe and community – which I’ll cover in another post.

Why I Try To Buy As Local As Possible

Most of the businesses in the Ward of the city I live in hire locals. Sure, there are some that hire people from afar (Omaha, Elkhorn, etc.), but for the most part you talk to workers here and they live in and around Ward 3 (that’s the Ward I live in).

Buying local puts money in the pockets of those workers, whereas going to Wal-Mart up the road, or Hy-Vee, puts money in the pockets of others.

It also puts money in the pockets of those small business owners in our area. They are working to make a living doing what (theoretically) they love. Restaurant, bar, or martial arts dojo, they are living and working in our Ward.

Money in their pockets means keeping generally good people in our community, some of which can actually apply money to improve it.

Supporting these businesses also signals to other small businesses that the area is ripe for investment. Maybe Bob next door wants to open a machining shop, and since he sees other businesses doing well in our area, he sets up shop here. Which means more jobs, and more money in our small community.

I also want to show that I support our community. That said, the Turkish food restaurant doesn’t have to try very hard to woo me. I will fork over cash for their food in a heartbeat. But showing my face and buying from them shows I support them and their endeavor. I don’t need small business Saturday to drive my local small business purchases. I do so weekly.

An Imperfect Recipe

Anyone with an iota of brain power will quickly identify the flaws in this plan. What if you require X Service or Y Material and Ward 3 doesn’t have it? Do I just not buy it?

The answer: I go to the city I live in.

And if the city I live in doesn’t have it?

I go to the nearest communities surrounding.

I’m not a purest when it comes to my attempts to buy as local as possible. It’s not 100% realistic. What about those from my community that, unable to open up shop here, open up shop down the road in another ward or town?

And what about my Tribe? I have an uncle that has businesses in Omaha and in another part of Nebraska. Do I not buy his architectural services or wines (respectively)?

The pure version of my principle is a lot like spandex: great idea, until real people started using it, then things got ugly.

Going A Little Further

Of course I am going to buy my uncle’s wines (they’re delicious and at a great price; look up Superior Estates Winery) and I would use his architectural services should I ever need a building for a small business (someday…).

The idea to buy as local as possible stems from two things.

First is the idea that one can only physically and psychologically actually care about only 150 people – which were what tribes were about back thousands, if not tens of thousands of years ago. While some of this is taken up by my family, closest friends, and fell National Guardsmen/women, it is also taken up by those that live in my community. Those who I live next to, go to church with, see at the bar, see at the gym, etc.

I want to build and develop my immediate community as much as I want to develop the relationships I have with family/friends/etc.

The second part of this is somewhat irrational – somewhat.

What if the world we know turns upside down, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and the U.S. starts looking a lot more like, say, Greece or Bosnia-Herzegovina?

This has nothing to do with who is about to become president, and everything to do with the way America is going. Police are less able to do their jobs in the wakes of riots due to killing criminals (insane, I know), and criminals move in to fill the vacuum. We feel this less in Nebraska, in my opinion, but the forces are still here that attempt to push us in that direction (I’m looking at you, Ernie Chambers).

Should such a thing happen I want to be able to defend hearth and home, as well as the community I live in. I want the neighborhoods, schools, and businesses here to remain in the event that the U.S. falls like so many other empires in history. A strong economy and strong local community can help that.

Conclusion

This post is just one in a string of thoughts I’ve been having, and I admit is disjointed and incomplete. I buy as local as possible to keep the local economy and community as strong as possible, and by supporting those individuals in our community that have small businesses here. It’s grossly imperfect. The businesses of my family and closest friends would override buying from the Ward of the city I live in. But should things go pear-shaped in our country I would hope that the building of this community would help weather the storm.

This doesn’t mean I won’t buy outside my community, of course. There are areas of Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska that I love visiting and staying at. Besides that I love to travel, and Boston, Dallas, Denver, and Sacramento are just a few cities which I will continue to visit and spend my money in. And there are products I have to go outside of where I live to buy, such as the Qalo rings my wife and I wear so we don’t damage our actual wedding rings, or the Apple laptop I write most of my blog posts and stories on.

That said, if my family and closest friends all moved to where I lived, it would be a lot easier… 😉

Superior Estates Winery

A shameless plug for my uncle’s winery. His wines are delicious, and most run about $16.99. They have even beaten many wines from Napa Valley in national contests. Go check them out: http://www.superiorestateswinery.com/

Book Review – Decision Points by George W. Bush

I don’t normally wax political on my blog. I attempt to keep my political views out of my love of all that is geeky. This has been made more difficult of late with the current U.S. election cycle.

That said, I do enjoy reading history, both long past and more current. I hop from ancient history circa 500 BCE, to the history of Prussia beginning in 1500 CE, up to present times, and everything in between at a whim. Ancient Roman, and Viking history interest me most.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Within I purchased a copy of George W. Bush’s book Decision Points, and began reading in ernest.

Erenest is a relative term when you have children. It took me the better part of 2-1/2 months to read.

George W. Bush is without a doubt one of the more controversial Presidents of our time. He has been criticized for everything from No Child Left Behind, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was far from perfect, as all human beings are. But, he is a man and leader I greatly respect, with all of his faults. I miss a president, like him, who not only preaches love of America, but lives it.

Decision Points itself is organized by topic, not chronology. Bush chose a series of major decisions in his life, and in his time as President, to discuss. From his decision to finally kick alcohol, to his decision to run for President of the United States of America. It is a deep insight into how he thought at the time, and why he acted as he did.

Once thing that stands out most in the book is his willingness to give credit where it’s due. He generally does not halt at party lines. Whether Democrat or Republican, Bush equally honors those that he worked with and helped him to make, what he sees, as a legislation and decisions that made for a better country, or that kept the country safer. At times he does talk about his work with the Republican Party and strategy meetings for elections. But more often than not he discusses striving to work with both sides of the aisle in congress to pass pass legislation, and to help Americans and others around the world.

He also does two things I see very few leaders these days do. First, he downplays the things he actually did himself. He gives short mention to his slipping past the media and visiting the troops in Iraq for Thanksgiving, or the fact that he cobbled together support from both parties for controversial legislation. Second, he openly admits his failures. I think this second one is more telling of the kind of person and leader George W. Bush is. Few of us, myself included, like to talk about and admit our glaring failures. I’m sure it was difficult for Bush to do the same. But he did in Decision Points. He admits them openly and without reserve. Where he failed spectacularly the reader gets the feeling that Bush is as hard on himself as the media and congress was.

Like I said, George W. Bush was far from perfect. There are things I disagreed with him on during his time in office. But he was also my Commander in Chief for the first part of my military career, and he loves the United States of America. He did good by the troops for the most part, and he backed his men and women 100%. He worked to make what he thought was a better, freer America. Though he was heavily criticized by all sides, he made the hard decisions and drove on to ensure America was more secure.

While reading I did poke holes in some of his reasoning. While he justifies the invasion of Iraq, he completely ignores the genocide of the South Sudanese at the same time. Though he defends bailing out banks and the auto industry, he says himself that companies should be able to fail as the free market and their own decisions see fit – instead Bush pushed to spend billions of dollars propping up failing companies instead of allowing true free market capitalism to reign and, while ripping that band aid off would have hurt, America would have been in a better position, in my opinion.

But he was POTUS at the time, and he was the one who had to make the decisions with the Congress he had to work with. I can arm-chair-politician all I want, President Bush was the “man in the arena.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Decision Points, and it will definitely be a book I reread in the future. I highly recommend this book to any who wish to have further understanding of the Bush presidency and that era of recent history.

Until next time!…

The Glog: The Gamer’s Log!

Two friend of mine and I have started a podcast: The Glog! We delve into the geeky goodness of hobbying, conventions, Dropfleet Commander, and RPG characters. Join us as we set out on our podcasting adventure!

Geekery – Battletech Fan Fiction – Shards of the Galaxy

I made a thing!

http://bg.battletech.com/forums/index.php?topic=54289.0

This is actually a project I began back in 2009. (Has it really been that long?) While I love the Battletech canon universe, and the factions and battles that take place in it, I also love creating something my own.

I dreamed up four major factions – disillusioned Lyrans, remnants of Clan Smoke Jaguar on the run, ComStar Explorer Corps deserters, and Magistracy of Canopus Merchants – as well as two or three minor ones – pirates, deserters of the major factions, mercenaries – that all converge on one system in the Deep Periphery around the time of the FedCom Civil War. Each has their own goals and desires, and they will come into conflict.

I have posted about 80% of what I originally wrote. Now I have the arduous task of writing more without notes. (I have no idea where I put my notes for this project…)

It’s already received great feedback on the Battletech forums. Go check it out and let me know what you think!

Until next time!…

Supply Chain – Managing Stakeholders and Vendors

Introduction

You, like many of your supply chain/procurement brothers and sisters in the United States, and probably around the world, have dealt with stakeholders in your organization getting cozy with the vendors you purchase from. This coziness leads to shady sole source justifications, or that vendor always being the preferred vendor even if they aren’t the low bid or the best service level.

What’s happened?

Your vendors are selling your stakeholders, and your stakeholders are helping them out, usually by jumping at the latest shiny thing the vendor has to offer. Sometimes there’s even some tit-for-tat deals. Other times, your stakeholders, or even your very own supply chain organization, have become comfortable with the “demon they know” as opposed to the one they don’t.

In this post we will take managing your stakeholders and your vendors, and the many challenges that come with that.

Stakeholders and Vendors

I’d like to start off by saying that your organization and your vendors have a good working relationship is not a bad thing. It’s a great thing! It helps both the company and the vendor communicate candidly with one another about what’s going on in both of their organizations and their respective markets, and how the two are interacting with one another. A great working relationship with your vendor can ensure that any problems that come up are handled quickly and efficiently, and that both parties are kept generally happy.

A good working relationship can be an open door to work with the vendor’s key decision makers. Have you ever had a problem with your salesman, and a quick talk with the supplier’s head manager seems to smooth everything over? It can also ensure that head manager understands the importance of your account, how much you appreciate them, and keeps them updated on their own company’s performance. A quick word about a supplier’s lagging performance and, generally, that head manager or corporate office is digging into his people to shape up.

There’s a flip side to all of this, of course. Such a working relationship can also be open door for vendor to subvert you and your supply chain/procurement department. The worst case scenario happens, and one of your offices demands that you buy Product Z from Vendor C. No formal request for quote process. No negotiations. No pitting the vendor off against others. Their Division Manager or Director comes to tell you that, yes, you are buying Product Z, despite your protests to the vendor’s quotation and the fact that other suppliers could provide a similar product for less.

The vendor marketed “the latest shiny thing” and sold your stakeholder(s) on it.

But how do you prevent this?

Managing Stakeholders

There are several ways that your supply chain organization, and the company has a whole, can manage internal stakeholders.

Written policies go a long way to prevent the kind of supplier subversion so many buyers and contract specialists despise. Things like “single point of contact for RFPs/RFQs” and “formal bidding process requirements” can stop  over-zealous project managers in their tracks. Having a review process/team that vets the business need and budgetary requirements can also help this.

Of course with policies comes the need to communicate said polices. In his book “Leading Change”, John Kotter states that the change agent must communicate the change vision (Kotter, 1996). Whether your polices are part of a change, or have been part of the organization’s policies for years, the supply chain organization, along with upper management, must constantly communicate these policies. Kotter provides an excellent framework: keep it simple; utilizing metaphor, analogy, and example; multiple forums; repetition; leadership by example; explanation of seeming inconsistencies; and give-and-take (Kotter, 1996, p. 90).

Along with this communication comes relationship building. You cannot have your supply chain/procurement organization sit secluded from the rest of the company. Constant interaction with your regular stakeholders, their management, and upper management helps build that open communication and flow of ideas so that written policies, new and old, are repeated regularly and don’t blindside people.

And any good policy needs enforcement. You can have HR include as much written policy on procurement activities and contracts as you want. It is for nothing if no one in the organization with the power to do so doesn’t enforce it. If that’s the case, your policies are nothing but a paper tiger. But, if senior management gets the directors and their staff to toe the line on theses policies, then such policies have teeth and those who break them can be dealt with. It’s not nice to think about, but those that break the rules, some that could hurt your company, must be dealt with.

Managing Vendors

Stakeholders aren’t the only ones that need managing. Your suppliers and contractors have to be watched, too.

First and foremost don’t give out an organizational chart of your company. Sure there are those websites that promise “the most accurate organizational charts for companies across the United States.” In my experience those websites are five to ten years behind, and you want to keep them that way. Giving a supplier an organizational chart is like giving the opposing team in football a list of all of your plays. Suddenly they know the vice president of the group that deals with the project they are bidding for and will work to bend his ear towards their cause. Such influence can hurt negotiations with them, or even other vendors.

Next, only put supply chain points of contact on RFPs/RFQs. Force the suppliers to only go through you for any and all communication. This can get tiresome, and your project managers and other stakeholders will get sick of it. But it keeps the suppliers from applying undue influence on the decision makers. If everything goes through you, all information from all bidders are given equal consideration, and information returned to them is consistent, as opposed to a stakeholder playing favorites with what information is given to which supplier.

There will be instances where the vendors already have key points of contact in your organization. Many times it’s just part of the business you do. Just ensure your stakeholders refer vendors back to the supply chain organization, and not make any decisions, written or verbal, without first communicating what’s going on with you first. (This goes back to that whole written policies and managing stakeholders thing.)

Upper/Management Support

I cannot stress the importance of having key Directors, Division Managers, VPs, and board members on board policies and the need to distance themselves as much as possible from vendors. Having a VP that gets a call from the VP of the supplier organization telling them no, and routing them back to you speaks volumes, makes your job easier, and the supplier’s job harder – especially if that supplier is a bidder on a RFP/RFQ.

Back to communication, make sure that the supply chain organization and the higher ups are on the same page. I find it’s better to over communicate a little as opposed to under communicate. The more they know, the more informed decisions vice presidents and boards can make in favor of the company. It also ensures they are brushed up on the latest policies and support them. If they don’t support them, such communication can facilitate working out what their issues are, and addressing them before that VP becomes a liability to your, and the company’s, efforts.

In “Leading Change” John Kotter states that you need to create a guiding coalition for your change initiative, and the key de jure and de facto decision makers within the organization are key to that whether policies and initiatives are just being rolled out or have been out there for decades (Kotter, 1996).

What If You Get Derailed?

At some point in your career you will get derailed from everything you are trying to do to effectively and responsibly manage your supply chain/procurement department/group. A bidder snags the right ear in your organization and gets them on board with their offering. Someone in your company is absolute poison to any cost savings initiatives, but no one will fire them. So what do you do?

Communicate it.

First to the stakeholder: – what happened, how it affects the organization as a whole, and why it’s a risk to the organization.

They just bought offer A without consulting anybody and signed the supplier’s very stringent, disadvantageous terms and conditions? Express to them how they hurt the budget of the whole company, and how if the company decides they don’t like the offering anymore there could be even more money lost, or how it could lead to legal proceedings.

Document it.

Document it for your own records to cover your own skin, and as a lessons learned. Having documentation can keep you out of legal trouble. It can also serve as a guide for others in your company, new and old, if organized, published, and distributed properly.

Take it to upper management – yours and theirs.

Yours so that your higher ups know what’s going on and what you did to try to stop it.

Theirs for the very same reason. And, of course, it’s about covering your own skin as much as it’s about helping the company.

Sometimes, though, there’s nothing you can do. The stakeholder has more political clout than you, or the project is a “company initiative” and no amount of argument, numbers, kicking, or screaming will change it. That $12 million was a rip off? Well it’s gone now, and the board and VPs all approved it. (I have run into the “company initiative” issue a lot lately in the organization I work for, and it’s frustrating because I know we could get better pricing, but those at the top say “jump”, and we jump and ask how high later.)

Sometimes you can’t win. Don’t get down. Document it. And work harder on the next project next time.

Conclusion

Managing your stakeholder and your vendors is just as important as managing the master purchase agreements and contracts that keep your company running. Communication with those within your organization and those within the suppliers’ organizations goes a long way in deconflicting a lot of issues, but sometimes things get derailed and your company loses out.

Remember to keep building those good working relationships, consistent, regular communication, and to keep working your hardest to ensure that you are getting the best pricing and service for your company. You may not always win, but when you do it will be noticed and appreciated.

 

Sources

“Leading Change”, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business Press, Brighton, MA, 1996.

Supply Chain – Identifying a Need Versus a Solution

I can’t count the number of times in my career when I had stakeholders or team members come to me and say,”I need X done, and I need it done this way.”

A few “why” questions, and a little investigation reveals that, no, it actually doesn’t need to be done that way, it’s simply the way the individual thinks it should be done. What do they actually need? What is the overall end state that must be accomplished?

Once we have that figured out, we can then start researching solutions.

What is a need?

In this instance, the need is what the end state is. Materials, such a maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) procurement; a service, such as company-wide maintenance; or software for something like managing your supply chain. Identifying this to its simplest source can help you and your organization find the best solution.

What is a solution?

Here, a solution is the process or way that the need to achieved. There are times when a project manager or upper management says, “We must do this from A to B to C.”

A Solution Vs. A Need

But many times this is not the case. In my experience (this is anecdotal), more often than not the stakeholder/requestor/project manager has conceptualized a need, and has built a solution to fit it.

“We need program Y because our manager and department need it for work.” This is another sentence I hear very often. And, just as often, it’s not true. The IT department or one of the maintenance departments gets a visit from an account manager from a software company, manufacturer or distributer, and are sold on their offering.

The specific software or certain product is rarely what that department or business unit actually needs.

A need looks like the following:

  • We need a work glove that is ANSI cut resistance five, is fire resistant, and made of a material that won’t melt to the worker’s skin in sizes small to triple-XL.
  • We need a program that manages and integrates our procurement, contracting, warehouse operations, that talks to our current ERP system.

Those are model needs.

From these needs, scopes of work written and requests for proposal/quote can be created. Or, if working with an incumbent vendor on a blanket contract/master purchase order, your team can work with them to find the most cost effective solution from their offerings to meet your actual need.

The Role of Supply Chain/Procurement/Material Management

Here I call it “Supply Chain”, but your business unit or department may have a different title.

Regardless, it’ll be the job of you and your department or business unit to work with your stakeholders to identify their actual needs and not allow the latest shiny thing to derail good company and/or project budgetary goals.

This can be hard, as there are individuals within organizations who have de facto authority over others where they shouldn’t, and you will have to work with your manger, director, and perhaps even your VP and other stakeholders to overcome these people.

It’ll also be your job to make sure that all suppliers and contractors go through your department. I can’t count the number of times I have been getting a vendor to meet our needs at or near our desired pricing, when they get the ear of a supervisor or manager in the department I’m working with, and all of a sudden all of my had work is derailed. Time that could have been used completing the agreement is used getting everyone back on the same page, or renegotiating things that we thought were already locked in.

Working with your stakeholders, maintaining good relationships, and using the “5 Why’s” method (which is actually as many “why’s” as needed to get to the bare bones need) will help you and your organization identify these actual needs of your internal customers.